(Pseudo) science and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency
August 24, 2005
When my e-mail and office phones filled with apprehensive messages about the latest proposals by California State Parks and the TRPA to limit overnight mooring, and establish a partial summer weekend ban on personal motorized boats in Emerald Bay, Senator Dave Cox and I teamed to get to the bottom of these issues.
TRPA officials informed us that that the Emerald Bay restrictions were still in proposal form, but they did have a decades-old prohibition against overnight mooring anywhere on Lake Tahoe. After looking into their code I concluded, and TRPA ultimately agreed, that no such prohibition exists.
Whether this misrepresentation of the TRPA code was done intentionally or mistakenly we will never know for sure. But, it should cause us to seriously question other boating management proposals floated recently by the TRPA.
In a half-inch-thick environmental document, three paragraphs explain TRPA’s desire to limit motorized boats in Emerald Bay during summer weekends, and to establish a boat sticker program. TRPA claims these programs are necessary due to “unacceptably high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other hydrocarbons” attributed to boating. A cursory view of the scientific reports on which these proposals are based suggests that this is another misrepresentation of the facts.
For example, one class of hydrocarbons allegedly polluting the lake was measured in a study at three parts per trillion in Emerald Bay. This is roughly equivalent to three postage stamps pasted on an area the size of Texas. Indeed, the control sample used to evaluate actual test samples revealed higher levels of supposed contaminants. When the unit of measure is parts per trillion, the control sample reveals higher concentrations than the test samples; this is not evidence of unacceptably high levels of hydrocarbons. Such a conclusion wouldn’t even win a ribbon at the junior-high science fair.
Writing about another class of hydrocarbons in their environmental document, TRPA suggests these particles build up on the lakebed, adversely impacting bottom-feeding organisms. As a layman, I found this curious because the measured quantities of these chemicals in the lake are well below established drinking water standards. Probing a bit further and expecting to see a reputable Tahoe researcher cited as the source, I found that this ecological “evidence” was taken from a 1995 opinion article from “Cruising World” magazine. This publication has some great tips on hot vacation destinations and how to repair cracks in marine paintjobs, but it is 20,000 leagues from a reputable scientific journal.
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The TRPA environmental documents conspicuously present information about hydrocarbon “hotspots” where measure levels exceed drinking water standards. However, much of the context of this discussion is missing. For example, it is known that two-stroke engines are exceedingly dirty and inefficient, contributing a disproportionate amount of hydrocarbons into the water. As a result, TRPA no longer allows two-strokes on the lake. In the study that TRPA is using to justify the current boating proposals, over half of the water samples were collected when certain types of two-stroke engines were still allowable on the Lake. Now that boaters must use cleaner burning engines, the detectable level hydrocarbons would be even smaller than that captured by the postage stamp analogy.
In a document TRPA commissioned to “provide a review of the relationship between boating activity at Lake Tahoe and potential water quality impacts from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons” many deficiencies are noted about the study on which the current boating proposals are based. In response, the lab director suggests that the lab was not intended to be operated so as to provide regulatory support. Despite this impeding revelation (contained in their own documents) TRPA is full steam ahead on suggesting ways to eliminate the evils of boating.
There are many researchers doing valuable work for Lake Tahoe and in no way am I attempting to discredit their work. My concern is that the scientific evidence produced so far, no matter how hard the TRPA tries, cannot be twisted into something that remotely supports the proposed boating curtailments or sticker program. Attempting to do so is simply pseudoscience. The TRPA Governing Board should direct staff to withdraw these unnecessary proposals from the Shorezone Plan, and avoid these types of scientific contortions in the future.
– This is the fifth in a series of articles regarding the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency by Assemblyman Tim Leslie. Leslie has represented Lake Tahoe in the California Legislature for 14 years.
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